Saturday, 30 July 2016

Criticism is Dead

It's time. Roll me a cigarette and pour me a pint of vodka while I go out there, slap on a fake frown and drape my cassock over my hunched shoulders. 

I'm not going to tell them about The Fringe. I'm not going to tell them about the Fringe.

The Edinburgh Fringe is a rare event, when reviews of a show can make a difference to its success. It's the big pay-day for critics, too. The usual trickle of work suddenly becomes a tidal wave, and that bloated, arrogant fool stuffing his face with KFC on Princes' Street is probably a critic, on their way between shows. 

But that review you are reading, upon which you will judge the merit of a performance and then decide whether to spend your money on a ticket: it a slab of hack work, shat out in the early hours in less time than it took to watch the show. It's twenty minutes worth of writing, and it has just pissed all over six months of devising, directing and rehearsing. It's unlikely the writer even notices the mixed metaphor used in condemnation.

Nobody trusts the media anymore, yet reviews are supposed to be informative. Do you think a reviewer has anymore integrity than a Daily Mail columnist winding up Middle England into paroxysmes of xenophobia? There's no craft, no skill, just opinion disguised as analysis. Nobody reads past the star rating, anyway. Knock it up, send it in. 

It wasn't that long ago that Edinburgh council would get upset by a show, and the headlines would condemn some filth or another. That would lead to plays becoming hot (I got my ticket for one about De Sade in a back alley). Now it's all 'biggest art market in the world' and the value of theatre to bring people together. What's the difference between a hard-hitting show about poverty and that advert for buying the world a coke?

Calling the Fringe an 'art market' is offensive. It shifts the dynamism of theatre from creativity to capital. It doesn't matter what the writer wants to say: as long as it shifts units, it performs. And this is the fault of critics.

The standard review is a consumer guide, reducing art to commodity. It panders not to the producer but the consumer. Critics might as well be talking about teacakes. Big issues - this year it's immigration, with a side order of identity politics - are unique selling points. Good performances are sugar-rich toppings. Thanks, criticism. The Romantics saw art as akin to religion (which is so uncool). Now it's commodity.

I could blame the artists for this: they plaster their posters with the bloody things. The star rating system is meaningless. 

But it's the critics who use them. It's the critics who assign the commodity an allegedly objective value. It's the critics who keep handing out the sweeties, and the artists eat until they vomit. 

There is no objective standard by which to assess art. Sure, actors forgetting their lines, not bothering to pick a good script, knocking over bits of the set, randomly throwing nudity into the mix: these things can be analysed. But a statement about the absolute quality of the work?

Theatre happens inside the mind, and its value is the interaction between an individual or collective experience and the event. For the same reason that some audience members get triggered by references to baked beans or crisps, while others can watch extreme sexual violence, quality is a personal opinion. 

Star ratings just aren't patronising enough. So there are awards for theatre.

Because art is a bit like football, and the only way to know who makes the best art is to give them a trinket.

That picture sums up what is going on in a critic's head when they hand out an award. 

Here you go, little fellow. Take this home to show to mummy.

Here's my challenge. One of the companies who gets offered an award this year: refuse it. Make a big statement about how you appreciate the offer, but it would demean the efforts of other performers for you to receive it.

You'll get massive headlines. It'll be like getting the award, with an extra level of integrity. There will be a media storm. 

And hell, that's what the awards are all about, aren't they? The assimilation of art into the commercial world of criticism. The appropriation of the hard work of artists by the corporate machine. Don't think you are wearing the award like a Cub Scout badge for achievement: the newspaper is wearing you to show off their cultural status.

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